Inspired by “Nine Lives: In search of the sacred in modern India” by William Dalrymple and various monographs published by Jain monks and nuns, I try to capture the world of Jain nuns across India.
I was intrigued by the lives of Jain nuns and wanted to explore ascetic life beyond the white robes, shaved heads and barefoot commuting. My curiosity took me to Rajasthan, Gujarat, Mumbai and Madhya Pradesh where I tried finding convincing answers to why renunciation brings so much peace to a nun’s life and what inspired them to accept renunciation. During my brief conversation with nuns, I started documenting potential visual moments and interesting imagery.
There are 7,000-8,000 nuns in the community. They wake up at 3.30-4 am and pray in pre-dawn darkness. Jain monks and nuns are not allowed to use electricity. It takes them a month to get one handcrafted bowl ready. They paint it with their fingers as brushes have animal hairs. After visiting the temple, the nuns settle down to study. There are exams to prepare for, lectures to attend and any conversations in between would be about religion and rituals. They have two more meals, the last one before sundown. They meditate two or three times a day. Except in Mumbai, Jain nuns don’t use bathrooms. Water shouldn’t be wasted at all. They don’t have a bath throughout their life.
In case of illness, Ayurvedic doctors are consulted, but only as a last resort. Jain nuns can’t take Western medicines or be hospitalised. If they happen to be diagnosed with a life-threatening condition, they voluntarily starve themselves to death. They feel a bond of tenderness, respect, and protection for humans. In their compass, everybody is equal. There are a few activities that Jain nuns must conduct in privacy — like eating, where they huddle behind a curtain. And the diksha (initiation) ceremony, where a nun is initiated into the fold after training.
Ash is applied to the head and each hair is plucked out. The nun-to-be shows no sign of pain. A Jain nun must pluck out her hair twice a year, and many do it themselves. Some nuns are as young as 10. But their maturity will surprise you. ‘Inner voice’ was a common refrain from other nuns as well. Engineers, doctors and countless others spoke of finding peace through renunciation.
I search for satisfying answers to difficult questions concerning validation of asceticism in modern times from nuns, who have disconnected themselves from this world leaving no room for communication.
A nun a bird in the sky
conquered passions, cravings,
feelings desire to taste the banned,
let the hair down and hold his hand
A nun a stream of water
sacrificed the abode, the folks,
the touch of father, brother,
husband and a son
the trips to mall, movies,
night club and all that fun
A nun a child out of the cradle
joy a leaf in the wind,
away from the stationary tree,
looking back it smiles and
Pooja Jain is an independent photographer based in Mumbai, India. She studied at Sir JJ School of Arts, and was selected for the young Asian Photographers Workshop at the 7th Angkor Photography Festival. Following a scholarship at Oslo University, she exhibited work at the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography VII, and at the second edition of the Delhi Photo Festival 2013. She is the winner of the Toto award for young photographers, 2014.